See Inside February 2009

150 Years Ago: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution

Innovation and discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American

SOVIET STUDENTS— “When Premier Khru­shchev recently called upon Soviet educators to strengthen ties between the schools and ‘life,’ [Yakov B.] Zel’dovich and [Andrei] Sakharov wrote a long letter to Pravda on the training of scientists-to-be at the secondary-school level. Their thesis is that boys and girls with mathematical or scientific talent spend too many years in ordinary schools in view of the fact that mathematicians and theoretical physicists are often most productive in their early twenties. They recommend segregating such students at 14 or 15 in schools that emphasize mathematics, physics and chemistry, perhaps to the virtual exclusion of humanities.”

WHIP IT GOOD— “Men created supersonic shock waves millennia before their projectiles and aircraft broke through the sound barrier. It seems that the crack of a whip occurs when its tip exceeds the speed of sound, and not when leather slaps against leather. This fact is revealed by an experimental and theoretical study of bullwhip dynamics made at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., with the cooperation of a team of theatrical whip-crackers. High-speed photographs made at 4,000 frames per second demonstrated that the tip moved at about 1,400 feet per second: some 25 per cent faster than sound. Shadow pictures clearly showed shock waves flowing from the tip.”

GREAT WHITE FLEET— “In view of the bitter criticism with which it was assailed, when the proposal to send a fleet of sixteen battleships from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast was first made public, the return of this same fleet to Hampton Roads after a 42,000-mile cruise around the world, with every ship in first-class shape and the morale of officers and men greatly improved, is a tribute to the far-sighted sagacity which projected the voyage. The spectacle of this most imposing array of first-class fighting ships, steaming in perfect order and on scheduled time from port to port across all the seven seas, has had the effect of raising the prestige of our navy in every quarter of the world. If any American imagined that the rapidly-increasing power and wealth of this country was regarded with suspicion, distrust, or active envy, surely the whole-hearted cordiality with which this concrete expression of our strength was everywhere received will effectually banish the idea from his mind.”

ASSMANN’S GASBAG— “At the present time, ascensions of the Assmann rubber balloons for meteorology to heights of 20,000 meters are not unusual. The most noteworthy improvement of the new method of sounding the air is the invention of Dr. Richard Assmann, director of the Royal Prussian Aeronautical Observatory. For the large balloons previously employed, some of which contained 500 cubic meters of gas, Dr. Assmann in 1901 substituted a much smaller one made of sheet rubber, which, when filled with hydrogen and sealed, rises until it is exploded by the internal expansion of the gas. The total weight of the 1,500-millimeter balloon, recording instruments, basket and cotton parachute is about 2,450 grammes.”

Industrial age— “A comparatively new American art embraces very original manufactures of iron composite-work, such as railings, fences, household furniture, and such. It was known long ago that wrought iron was stronger and more flexible than any material employed in the arts, and that it was indestructible by the elements of the atmosphere, when protected with paint. But to forge it out of rods and bars into a great variety of forms, pleasing to the eye as well as useful and durable in character, was out of the question, owing to the great expense incurred for hand labor. The genius of the inventor was required to reduce wrought iron to practical purposes. The result is manufactures such as the New York Wire Railing Company.”

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